Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Crisis Danger Opportunity Colbert

On tonight's Colbert Réport, Stephen Colbert says, "Ask any management training consultant. They'll tell you the same Chinese character for crisis is also the Chinese character for opportunity. Probably horse 屎, but here's the point: there was an upside to the [Bubonic] Plague."

I'll let Cousin Curveball tell you about the Bubonic Plague and Stephen's coverage thereof, but I did want to throw in my two borrowed cents worth on the whole "crisis = danger + opportunity" business.

Simply put, the person who came up with that little nugget of alleged wisdom was almost certainly not a native speaker of Chinese. It's based on one of those little linguistic naïvetés to which students fall prey, sort of like if you confused Cousin Curveball's use of the word blessée (wounded) with the English word blessed.

As best as I can make out, only barely knowing a "Ni hau ma" from a "傻的外国人," the word crisis in Chinese is composed of two syllables, each represented by a character. The first character is also the first character of the word for danger, while the second character is also the first character of the word for opportunity. However, danger and opportunity are both represented by two-character sequences.

The best analogy I can give you is to imagine that the English word for crisis were spelled danoppor.

In traditional Chinese characters, crisis is , danger is 危險, and opportunity is 機會.

In simplified Chinese characters, crisis is , danger is 危险, and opportunity is 机会.

[For a rather better-informed discussion of the issue, check out Prof. Vincent Mair's article on the pinyin.info website.]